I saw Julian Schnabel’s film “Miral” a few months ago at a private screening but did not write about it at the time. The film had been billed to me as a “game changer” that would finally present a sympathetic portrayal of the Palestinian struggle, but I was not very excited or impressed by what I saw. Considering how jaded I have become about potential “game changers” (why hasn’t the game changed yet?) and how many films I have seen about and by Palestinians, I might not be the best person to evaluate the film as a vehicle for educating the American public. After spending nearly two months reflecting on the Miral, I concluded that despite its many flaws, it represents a valuable and timely contribution.
Miral’s plot focuses on Hind Husseini, daughter of Palestinian aristocracy and founder of the Dar El-Tifel orphanage, which originally housed the children of the victims of the Deir Yassin massacre. Thus Schnabel depicts the Nakba, a first in a major American film, however, he does it with minimal context and explanation. Why did Israel evict 750,000 Palestinian Arabs from their homes and their land? The answer explains the roots of the conflict, yet the history remains unknown to most in the West.
Next, viewers are introduced to Miral, whose mother was so traumatized by the events of 1948 and by the sexual abuse visited on her by her father that she committed suicide. Miral’s character, played in mediocre fashion by Frieda Pinto, who could not seem to drop her Hindi accent (her performance reminded me of Kevin Costner’s Midwestern-accented Robin Hood), is based on Rula Jebreal, the author of the novel “Miral.” As the wife of Schnabel, Jebreal apparently convinced him to turn her book into a film. As in the movie, Rula was sent by her widowed father to live and study at Dar El-Tifel. There she was schooled along with dozens of girls (including the writer Susan Abulhawa) to be the cream of Palestinian society, and to educate the left-behinds in the refugee camps.
Having moved through the Nakba and the occupation of Jerusalem in 1967 — and there viewers see a rare acknowledgment of Palestinian terrorism as a tactic employed in the grand tradition of anti-colonial resistance — the film culminates with the War of the Stones, known in the West as the First Intifada. “Intifada means stand up straight,” Miral tells one of her classmates as riots spread from Gaza to the West Bank. I thought this line was a touch corny, but then again, when has a mass Western audience seen the Intifada depicted as anything other than a Jew-hating terror fest?
It is during this section that Schabel shows his strengths. Though he tends to sacrifice narrative depth for powerful imagery (“Basquiat” felt like a two hour long music video), Schnabel’s fixation on aesthetics resulted in Miral’s most subversive scenes. As Miral becomes increasingly involved with PLO activists, she is immediately swept up by thrasher of the Israeli occupation. Schnabel unflinchingly depicts her torture at the hands of a Amazon-like female Shabak agent, something that has happened to hundreds if not thousands of young Palestinian women in Israeli prisons. And he recreates scenes of Israeli home demolition that were so true to life I had flashbacks to Al-Arakib, where I watched Israeli bulldozers level an entire village while a phalanx of soldiers forced its Bedouin residents away from their crumbling homes.
The brief but vivid depictions of common Israelis prompted flashbacks of daily life in Israel, from the pinched lipped Jewish redneck on the Jerusalem city bus who blurts out racial slurs at the nearest available Arab; to the smug Israeli general who corrects Miral when she identifies herself as Palestinian, informing her that she is in fact an “Israeli Arab;” to the free spirited Tel Avivian youths who are more than happy to party with an attractive Palestinian girl like Miral — and who pat themselves on the back for doing so — but would do nothing to help her struggle for their liberation. During the time I spent inside Israel, I met all of these characters again and again.
Unfortunately, for all of Miral’s strengths, the film completely collapses in its final minutes as viewers are introduced to the Oslo Accords. Schnabel presents the US-brokered effort as a sincere attempt at peace and not the Trojan Horse for permanent occupation that Israel’s subsequent actions exposed it to be. It is disappointing that Schnabel chose to portray the peace process as some sort of panacea, with Yitzhak Rabin appearing on screen before cheering throngs to declare that “we are making peace,” when it has only enabled Israel to deepen its occupation and create more facts on the ground with the stamp of Western approval. Anyone who has taken a cursory glance at the Palestine Papers would have a hard time disputing that the peace process is a sham. I know American moviegoers yearn for moral clarity and golden sunsets, but Schnabel should have avoided propagandizing in favor of a discredited political process — or any “solution,” for that matter. The stories he and Jebreal presented of Palestinian women living under occupation and apartheid were powerful enough to stand on their own.